How to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

By Amy Nilson March 15, 2009 16:56

Don’t tell Dorothy Danz you can’t teach an old dog a new trick.

The Sonora retiree recently taught her 15-year-old Westie, Sydney, how to balance a treat on her nose, and how to bark to get a boost up to her favorite window seat since she can’t jump up on her own anymore.

Retired store owner Gloria Rucker has her 10-year-old poodle in a “dance troupe,” where dogs and owners learn little dance routines to perform at senior care homes. They’ve learned four routines in the last year, and her dog, Nessie, just lights up when it’s time to entertain.

And Kathy Burnett still has regular training sessions with her 12-year-old Siberian Huskie, Ray Charles. He might take a little longer to learn a new trick, she says, but once he gets it, he never forgets.

Training, these dog owners say, keeps their older dogs happy, healthy and full of life.

“It keeps that spark in their eyes,” Burnett says. “Ray Charles is still pretty sharp.”

“They love to learn,” says Danz. “And it’s so rewarding to teach them. It’s something you feel good about.”

Sonora instructors Sherry and Stu Galka, of Mother Lode K-9 Training, have helped thousands of local owners and dogs of all ages complete training from basic to advanced.

“Yes you can teach an old dog new tricks and it’s worth it!” Sherry says. “They love to work and they love the attention. It’s a great way to bond and they need that at any age.”

The Galkas see many owners come to class with older dogs, either because they recently adopted them, want to change a bad habit or two, or want to try a new activity together.

Danz has had her dog, Sydney, from the time she was a little pup, and didn’t take her to training until just a few years ago after she retired. She had heard about Tuolumne County’s therapy dog program, which certifies dogs to visit nursing care and senior care homes, and thought it sounded worthwhile.

“We’re so thankful we went through the program,” Danz says. “It’s been good for us and good for her. Sydney is a little arthritic and hard of hearing, but she rises to the occasion. She’s so smart, she can learn anything, and now Avalon (a Sonora care home) is her favorite place.”

Rucker says that her poodle, Nessie, had almost no socialization with other dogs and little human contact when Gloria adopted her four years ago. So they came to class together, and Nessie blossomed.

“She was so shy at first that I almost dropped out,” says Rucker, who has logged hundreds of therapy visits with Nessie since. “But now she’s so outgoing and friendly.”

Stu Galka says older dogs sometimes need a little more time to get in the swing of a new activity. “But once they get the idea, they come along,” he says.

The key, the Galkas say, is finding what motivates your dog. For most, it’s a favorite food. Have a pouch or bag of treats in your pocket, and most dogs perk right up.

For other dogs, a favorite ball or toy is the best reward.

“It can be so much fun for them, their eyes sparkle, they perk up,” Sherry Galka says. “And you’ll be surprised what they can learn.”

To learn more about training older dogs, contact Mother Lode K-9 Training at 532-9217. For more about adopting an older dog, call the Humane Society of Tuolumne County at 984-5489 or Tuolumne County Animal Control at 694-2730.

Here are a few easy-to-learn games to put a little fun in any dog’s day:

TOUCH – A basic game that can be used to teach other tricks. First, give the command “touch,” have the dog touch your hand with its nose, and reward with a treat from your other hand. Then, transition to having the dog touch the end of a stick with the same command and reward. Move the stick into different positions (high, low, behind, side), and have the dog follow to touch it for a reward. Finally, transition to have the dog “touch” where you point.

‘EASY’ TAG – Pick up a Staples “Easy Button” or desktop bell that makes a noise when you step on it. Put the device in the middle of the room. Show your dog how to use a paw to make the noise, then give them lots of praise and a treat. Repeat with the verbal command “tag” and have them come to you for the treat. Gradually move farther back each time, so the dog has to come a further distance to collect its reward. “Pretty soon, you can play this while you stay sitting on the couch,” Sherry Galka says. “It’s fun for both of you.”

FIND IT – Have your dog wait out of sight while you hide a favorite toy or little treat nearby, under the corner of a rug or somewhere easy to see. Give the command “Find it” and give them lots of praise when they do. Build on the game by having them wait in another room while you hide several little treats or favorite toys around a room, then let them in and cheer them on to find them all. “Some dogs find by scent alone, and others by sight as well,” Galka says. “This game can get almost every dog going – they love it!”

DOOR TRICKS – Most dogs can’t wait to go outside, which makes the door a good place to teach a new trick. Start with basic good manners by making them sit and wait for your command to go out. Then try a little game, like having them ring a bell or circle right or left on command before you let them out. “You always have to find what motivates your dog,” Galka said. “Going outside is a good reward.”

© 2009, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Amy Nilson March 15, 2009 16:56
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